The Best Lakes Near Rome

Lago di Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

Lago Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

When it comes to day trips from Rome, the area's lakes provide some of the best places for peace, quiet, and gorgeous scenery. 

Yes, most visitors to Rome head to the seaside when they're craving some water. But especially this time of year, when the beaches are getting downright chilly, the lakes can be a better option. That's particularly true as the trees start to change color. As any autumn-lover knows, the only thing more beautiful than a brightly-colored forest is a brightly-colored forest… that's reflected in a lake's still water.

In the summer, too, the lakes make a great escape from the city—and one that's less crowded, as most Italians tend to head to the seaside instead. (That said? If you're going on a summer weekend, consider taking the train instead of driving. Parking at the lakes' most popular stops is limited, and the traffic going into, and out of, Rome can add an hour or more to your commute).

Year-round, here are my three favorite lakes near Rome!

Lake Bracciano

Lago di bracciano

Lake Bracciano in autumn

The second-largest lake in Lazio, Bracciano's also one of the area's cleanest: It's a water reservoir for Rome, so no motorboats are allowed, while runoff from the lake's towns is strictly controlled. That means that you can both swim in, and eat seafood from, the lake without having to worry about nasty bacteria or chemicals. (Sadly, this isn't the norm for many of Italy's lakes; Lake Lugano, Como, and Garda are all polluted to the degree that swimming isn't recommended).

Partly thanks to the motorboat ban, watersports like windsurfing and sailing are especially popular. And several of the lake's towns are well worth exploring; Bracciano, the (unsurprisingly) most famous, is especially adorable, with medieval, cobblestoned streets and a gorgeous view of the lake.

Oh, and a castle.

Lake Bracciano

Odescalchi Castle, at Lake Bracciano

If the castle sounds, or looks, familiar, by the way, it might just be because this is where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were first linked, legally if not eternally, as TomKat. Although, honestly, I really hope that's not why you recognize it.

Getting there: By car, Bracciano is about a 45-minute drive (without traffice) north of Rome. By train, you can leave from the Roma-Ostiense station (a 5-minute walk from the Piramide stop on metro line B); the train takes about an hour to Bracciano and costs about 3 euros.

Lake Martignano

Lake Martignano, near Bracciano

Lago di Martignano

Nestled next to Lake Bracciano, Martignano looks like a runt on the map. But what comes with the tiny size is complete tranquility. Partly because it's tougher to get to: Even though it's right next to Lake Bracciano, there's no train station here, so you need a car.

If you can make the trip, though, it's worth it. Just make sure you head to Agriturismo il Castoro, where, for a small fee, you can enjoy use of the grass beach and (here's the real seller) the hammocks. On especially nice days, get there before noon so you can stake one out!

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

Another plus: The agriturismo has a cheap-and-simple restaurant (think grilled meats, vegetables, and beer), and you can eat overlooking the lake. Don't want to leave? You can camp overnight.

Getting there: Your only option is by car; it's about a 45-minute drive from Rome (depending on traffic). Agriturismo il Castoro is located at Via di Polline, 343, Anguillara Sabazia.

Lake Albano 

Lake Albano

Water sports abound on Lake Albano

In the opposite direction of Rome from Bracciano and Martignano, Lake Albano is located in the Castelli Romani. Motorboats aren't allowed here, either, making the lake especially amenable to windsurfing and sailing—and to renting a pedalo, one of those funny little boats that you can pedal around the lake in yourself.

Be warned that there's not much beach to speak of; there's a little slice of grass next to the lake, but getting into the water itself involves a balancing act of avoiding falling into the mud. Renting a pedalo, taking it out to the middle of the lake, and jumping in from there is always a better option.

When you get your fill of the lake, walk the 15 or so minutes uphill to Castel Gandolfo. The Pope's residence in the summer, this medieval village, while tiny, has some perks, like gorgeous views of the lake and a couple of good restaurants. A friend of mine spent every weekend this summer at the lake taking windsurfing lessons introduced me to Arte e Vino, a cute, cozy cantina with the best lunch deal in town: plate after plate of antipasti for (if my memory serves me correctly… both times I've been there, I walked out in a serious food daze) 12 euros. 

Arte e Vino at Castel Gandolfo at Lake Albano

Just one of the many plates of antipasti at Arte e Vino…

Getting there: Without traffic, it's about a 35-minute drive south of Rome. By train from Rome's Termini station, it takes 45 minutes and costs just €2.10.

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Five Weekend Escapes from Rome, in Pictures

Looking to get out of Rome for a couple of days? Here are five of my favorite weekend escapes!

Siena, Tuscany, a great day trip from Rome
Siena, one of my favorite cities, boasts medieval streets, incredible Renaissance art, graceful palaces, and one of the most incredible churches in Italy. It's a 3-hour train ride from Rome. Check out my other post on Siena, or my day trip itinerary over at Art Trav.

 

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

Although it takes almost 5 hours to get here on the train from Rome, Monopoli, located in Puglia, has a beautiful beach, lovely streets, and top-notch food. It's also a great place to stay for the weekend to explore Puglia's other gems, like Bari or Polignano a Mare

 

Naples, Italy, a day trip from Rome

Although you could visit Naples in a day trip—on the high-speed train, it's just a little over an hour—the city's really worth at least a weekend. Evocative piazzas and palaces? Check. Some of the most important art in Italy? Check. One of the finest archaeological museums in the world? Check. Incredible food (including pizza), three castles, and the liveliest atmosphere you'll ever experience? Check, check and check. Here's my post on what to see in Naples, here's my weekend guide to where to stay and what to do for the weekend for New York Magazine, and here's my most recent article on why I love the city so much.

 

Ponza, off the coast from Rome

I owe you all a post on Ponza, the gorgeous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Formia (itself an hour-long drive from Rome). But until then, this picture, of the cliffs on Ponza where Circe was said to have lived and seduced Odysseus, will suffice.

  Perugia, a great day or weekend trip from Rome

Perugia, located 2.5 hours from Rome on the train, is a gem of a city. It's also a great base to spend the weekend exploring Umbria, possibly my favorite region in all of Italy.

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From Rome to Puglia: Monopoli

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy
Monopoli—my third and final destination on my quick trip from Rome to Puglia—just might have been my favorite.

Just a half an hour and €2.90 on the train from Bari, or 5 minutes and €1 from Polignano a Mare, where we were staying, Monopoli was a gem. Much bigger than Polignano, with 50,000 inhabitants, it had more of the feel of an "authentic" city. But still managed to be incredibly beautiful and relaxing. Especially if you did it like we did.

You easily can spend a couple of hours wandering through Monopoli's tangled centro storico. There's not a ton that you "have" to see here, although there is a 16th-century castle and an imposing Baroque cathedral. (We skipped the castle and ducked into the cathedral. Baroque is an understatement. Our favorite part, though, was seeing the priest walk a young couple—the girl dressed in a super-tight T-shirt, the guy in shorts—through what appeared to be a wedding ceremony. We thought we were witnessing an elopement until we realized that it was a practice run).

Just wandering the streets, though, is a pleasure. Make sure to take five minutes and stop at one of Monopoli's many cafes and bakeries for a little taste of Pugliese flavor; I was very, very happy with my choice of a fluffy, buttery pastry filled with cheese and meat. Puglia's answer to the Cornish pasty.

Pastry in Monopoli, Puglia
Pastry in Monopoli

One of the real draws of Monopoli, though, is wandering outside of its fortified walls, past groups of families and old men and various and sundry other beach-goers, sunning themselves on rocks or the odd bit of sand.

The favorite place, of course, was the city beach. And the water looked extremely clear and clean—much more so than anything you'd see around Rome. Given the crowd, though, we opted to push on and see what else we found.

Town beach of Monopoli, Puglia
About 10 minutes into our wander, walking south down the coast, my father and I hit on a relatively quiet beach. We were all set to plop down our towels when we saw a restaurant perched above, its open-air terrace with a to-die-for view of the Adriatic. And then I recognized the name: Lido Bianco.

Without meaning to, we'd stumbled right upon the restaurant that food blogger Katie Parla had recommended to me. Now that's what I call serendipity… especially since it was getting close to lunchtime. Although the food would have been worth the effort. And the view.

View from Lido Bianco, Monopoli, Puglia

Food at Lido Bianco restaurant in Monopoli Puglia

Wandering around the historic center, relaxing on the beach, and eating a meal that was beautiful in every sense of the word: you can't get a better day in Puglia than that.

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Quick Trip from Rome to Puglia: Bari

Locals hanging out in the centro storico of Bari

The "heel" of the boot of Italy, Puglia is one of the country's most beautiful regions. It's got it all: miles of gorgeous coastline (and beaches), fantastic food, friendly locals, lovely little towns with medieval historical centers. And, while Italians flood Puglia's beaches in August, during the rest of the year, even Puglia's most resort-like towns are relatively quiet. At least compared to, say, the Cinque Terre or Amalfi coast.

Soon, though, all that will change. Travelers beyond Italy are catching onto Puglia's charms, from, just this year, writers for Travel + Leisure to the "Frugal Traveler" for the New York Times. So I knew I had to go… now.

To really explore the region, you'd need at least a week and a car. My father and I had neither. (We could have rented a car, but Dad wasn't particularly keen on spending his vacation behind the wheel, and since I haven't even been behind a wheel in years, getting my feet wet on back roads in the Italian countryside didn't seem like a great plan).

We had a great three-day trip. We ate well, visited important sites, relaxed at the beach, and explored a couple of truly beautiful towns. So don't let anyone tell you you simply can't do Puglia as a short trip from Rome, by train. If you have to, you can.

First stop: Bari. More posts to come!

Day One in Bari

Bari: a real, working city in Puglia, Italy

It's hard to find many people who are in love with Bari; even Italians get a slight crinkle in their nose when the city is mentioned. When tourists come, it's mostly because they have to — it's a big hub not only for Puglia, but for ferries to Albania, Croatia and Greece, not to mention lots of Mediterranean cruises.

And, yes, there are things about Bari that aren't fantastic. Much of the city is built-up and modern, for example, so if you're looking for something that strikes you as idyllic and medieval as soon as you step off the train, you're in the wrong place. More than anything else, this is a working town. You know. One not based primarily on tourism to survive.

That said? Bari is incredibly lively (despite loving how, in small towns across Italy, full families, teenagers, and old men take to the piazzas every evening to stroll and chat, I'd never seen quite as many people do this as in Bari). It has a lovely, labyrinthine centro storico, even though it takes a bus ride or a half-hour walk to get there from the train station. The people are super-friendly. And there are some sites that are actually pretty important.

Centro storico of Bari, Puglia

Overall, it's not a bad launching-point for explorations into more southern parts of Puglia. (For its love-it-or-hate-it quality, as well as the atmosphere, Bari reminded me a bit of Naples).

To get there from Rome, we hopped the fast train, which took four hours and cost €51 one-way. (If you book far enough in advance to take advantage of a MINI fare, you can snag a ticket for €41). The slowest train costs just €36, but takes 6.5 hours. Ouch).

Getting to Bari by train was pretty easy. Promptly after arriving, we spent some 30 minutes sitting on a bus, waiting for it to start, and then another 45 minutes wandering, lost, around the gorgeous but incredibly confusing centro storico. (Told you it was labyrinthine). Supposedly, it was designed that way to perplex Saracenic invaders. It must have worked pretty well. But we finally found our B&B, "La Uascezze". Luckily, it was lovely, super-clean, and complete with a small kitchen, all for €80 per night.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering—more!—around the centro storico. Although I'd been looking forward to kicking off with some proper Pugliese food, though, I'd made the terrible decision to get to Bari on a Monday… which meant that almost all of the non-touristy restaurants were closed. So be warned.

Basilica di San Nicola in Bari

Still, we were able to explore Bari's famous churches, including the 12th-century Church of St. Nicolas of Bari, home to the relics of the saint himself (above), and the Cathedral of San Sabino, built to Bari's first patron saint before Nicolas knocked him off his pedestal (below). Cattedrale di San Sabino, Bari
We even popped into the Castello Normanno-Svevo. Also 12th-century, the castle has belonged to everyone from Norman king Roger II to Holy Roman emperor Frederick II; Bona Sforza, queen of Poland, lived here in the 15th-century, and the king of Naples later turned it into a prison. Only hints of its former residents are left today, but it's still a treat to be able to walk through the imposing fortification—for only €2 each.

Bari had its atmosphere, and the centro storico and churches were definitely lovely. But after a full afternoon and evening, we were ready to head to our next destination: Polignano a Mare. Stay tuned for the next post!

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Naples, a Day Trip to the Nuttier Side of Italy

Pizzeria di Matteo, Naples, ItalyWhen it comes to Naples, normally-rational people become extreme. They either love the lively atmosphere, the incredible pizza, the zany streets, the faded-glory architecture. Or they hate the graffiti, the grunge, the garbage, the crime.

But here's a thought: Instead of taking everyone else's word for it, check it out for yourself.

Naples is an easy day trip from Rome, and if you're visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum or the Amalfi coast anyway, a stop there makes a lot of sense (especially because, if you're visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum, you can't miss the Naples Archaeological Museum). And — even if you wind up being one of those people in the "hate" camp — it has some gems that really can't be missed.

The city itself is sprawling and maze-like. Its history is just as, well, confusing. The short version: It was founded by Greeks in the 8th century B.C. as "Neapolis," taken by Romans, and then passed like a hot potato between barbarians, Byzantines, barbarians, Byzantines…and finally to the Normans in the 12th century. Until the 19th century, other rulers included the kingdom of Aragon, the French, Hapsburg Spain, the Austrians, Bourbon Spain, and the Napoleons. (Under the Bourbons, Naples became Europe's largest city — second only to Paris). Finally, in 1861, Naples was made part of unified Italy.

Whew.

As if that weren't enough to make the city's layout, and its culture, somewhat baffling to outsiders, you then have to consider all the problems it's faced. It was the most-bombed Italian city in World War II. Today, it's home to Italy's cruelest and most powerful Mafia organizations, a huge trash-collection problem that means bags of garbage continue to heap the streets, and some of the highest unemployment in Italy.

But it's also home to things like, I don't know, not one, but two different medieval castles — Castel Nuovo and Castel Sant'Elmo. Or the oldest baptistery in the entire western world, a 4th-century building decorated with 5th-century mosaics, the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte. Or Caravaggio's famous Seven Acts of Mercy, located in Pio Monte della Misericordiaamong Caravaggio's other works in Naples. Or the Cappella Sansevero, with its famous and extraordinary sculpture of a veiled, dead Christ. Or this 19th-century arcade, the Galleria Umberto I (below), built to look like the famous gallery in Milan.Galleria Umberto I, Naples, Italy

Then there's the National Archaeological Museum. I can't stress it strongly enough: Even with many of the wings closed to renovations, this is a must-see. It's where all that stuff from Pompeii and Herculaneum actually wound up.Here's where you'll find dozens of incredibly-preserved ancient Roman frescoes (like the one below), everyday items like vases and tableware, and ancient statues that make the Vatican's collection look like a cheap souvenir shop, including the incredible Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull taken from the Baths of Caracalla. Ancient Roman frescoes, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

If you have time, you also should make it up to the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte. Once Bourbon King Charles III's royal palace, it now houses a world-class museum — one rivaled by few other art collections in Italy. It includes masterpieces by Artemesia Gentileschi, Brueghel, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Titian… among many others.

Then there are all the aspects of Naples that don't fit so cleanly into the guidebooks. The atmosphere. The maze-like streets. The young people congregating at coffee bars and bookstores in the university quarter. The shock you'll get the first time you see an entire family of four crammed onto a scooter, all without helmets, gunning it in the direction of an oncoming car.

And we haven't even gotten to the pizza!

But don't worry: For that, I think a picture alone will suffice.
Pizza from di Matteo, Naples

So: You might be a Naples-lover or a Naples-hater. But until you go, you'll have no idea.

The easiest way to get there is to take a train from Rome Termini to the central Naples station. The 1hr, 10 mins train costs €44 one way; the 2hr, 5 min train costs €22. Check Trenitalia for times and fares.

 

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Orvieto: An Umbrian Escape from Rome

Orvieto was my first real day trip from Rome. I’ve been partial to it ever since.

But that’s not the only reason why I love Orvieto.

Orvieto is one of Umbria’s many excellent offerings, with the added advantage of being just an hour’s drive or train ride from Rome. It boasts an Etruscan museum, underground tunnels, gorgeous views, great food, and a gorgeous duomo with game-changing frescoes (yes, I just said “game-changing” to refer to Renaissance art). Oh, and those little winding streets, hidden churches and medieval-hilltop-town character that, if you’ve traveled in Umbria before, are ho-hum to you by now.

(Just kidding. This stuff never gets ho-hum. I don’t think).

Part of Orvieto’s unique character comes from its history. Etruscans lived here as early as the 8th century B.C., and you can still see — even touch — the remnants they left behind. Like the tunnels and chambers that they dug into the soft tufa underneath the current city. This underground, which includes some 1,200 caves, passages and chambers, is a labyrinth that reaches several stories deep. Underground caverns at Orvieto

You can explore Orvieto’s underground either by taking a tour of a section of it (tours leave from the piazza of the Duomo, and take you through chambers with wells and olive mills built by the Etruscans), or simply by stumbling onto a section. Like at lunch. Below, the Grotte del Funaro, a restaurant that’s built into underground caverns where locals made rope in the Middle Ages. Le Grotte del Funaro, Orvieto

Don’t miss, either, Orvieto’s two archaeological museums. The National Archaeological Museum, right next to the duomo, boasts delicate bronze hand mirrors, sculpture with the paint traces remaining, and even a full suit of armor. All, you know, about 2,300 years old. The most exciting part, though, is the museum’s two chambers with frescoes taken from 5th century B.C. necropoli discovered nearby. If the rooms aren’t open, ask the guard to let you in. The other archaeological museum, meanwhile, is across from the duomo and has more finds from Orvieto’s prehistoric, Etruscan, and Roman eras.

Then there’s the duomo itself. It’s… well, it’s a masterpiece. Begun in 1290, it’s the epitome of the Italian Gothic style, its exterior elaborate with mosaics, stonework and detailed carvings.
Duomo of Orvieto, exterior

Inside, though, the duomo is something else entirely. For worshipers, it’s most famous for an event said to take place not far from here in 1263: A priest traveling to Rome stopped at Bolsena to pray, and blood started to seep from the consecrated host. The bloodstained linen is still enshrined at the duomo of Orvieto, where it had been brought that year. It’s in the last chapel on the left, with 14th-century frescoes.

But don’t miss, either, the last chapel on the right-hand side, which is where Luca Signorelli painted his Last Judgment in 1499. That’s thirty-six years before Michelangelo would start his own version, and you can see the inspiration Michelangelo took from the older artist: The vibrant, muscular, tortured-looking figures of Signorelli’s frescoes aren’t that far off from what you see in the Sistine Chapel today. Below, his image of the damned, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.The Damned, Luca Signorelli, Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto duomoEtruscan tunnels, medieval duomo, Renaissance frescoes — but there’s more to do in Orvieto, too, whether exploring its myriad other churches or simply wandering through its streets. Don’t miss it.

Orvieto is easy to get to; you can either drive (it’s a straight shot on the highway) or take the train, which takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, depending on the price. Check train times at www.trenitalia.com. Be aware that the train station is at the bottom of the hill, so you will have to take the funicular up to the city.

 

 

 

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A Half Hour from Rome, Hadrian’s Villa and Renaissance Gardens

View from Villa d'Este, Tivoli, Italy

When asked about day trips from Rome, most people recommend Tivoli. Just a half-hour's drive from Rome, the town boasts the Renaissance-era Villa d'Este and the 1,850-year-old ruins of Hadrian's villa

I finally made it there this weekend, my hopes high. After all, I love the Renaissance and ruins. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing went wrong. But given all the hype, I was a little underwhelmed.

First, Villa d'Este. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the villa, built by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este in the mid-sixteenth century, is like a fairyland-gone-slightly-to-seed. The gardens are filled with grottoes, fountains, and odd touches of whimsy: a fountain of Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess of fertility, her breast-like decorative gourds spouting; an organ hid within an elaborate sculptured fountain; grottoes once  filled with movable wooden cut-outs of creatures. Odd stuff, but with some of the sculptures missing and mechanization not working, a little less enrapturing than it would have been, say, for Ippolito.Mannerist frescoes in Tivoli's Villa d'Este

The palace itself, too, feels a bit Alice-in-Wonderland. A wander through yields room after room of colorful Mannerist frescoes and examples of tromp l'oeil, that tricksy French attempt to make you think that the flat surface you're looking at is three-dimensional. But despite the sheer amount of paintings, if you're more of a Renaissance or Baroque lover — or you've simply been spoiled by, say, the quality of frescoes at the Vatican — the palace seems better-suited for a fairly quick walk-through than an in-depth artistic experience.

Then there's Hadrian's villa. Built as the emperor's retreat from Rome in the flat valley below Tivoli, it's a sprawling, 250-acre complex of ruins, olive tree groves, and, well, dust. Hadrian designed much of it himself, and its buildings and fountains drew on styles he saw across the empire, from Egypt to Greece.

But walking through the villa almost felt like walking across the empire itself. Even getting from the parking lot to the first section of the ruins takes about 15 minutes; getting a full overview of the villa would mean a half-day of wandering, or more.

The pay-off didn't seem quite worth it. Much of the area remains unexcavated, while a lot of the ruins themselves are surprisingly unassuming. Nor is the signage that helpful — a common complaint at archaeological sites, but all the more frustrating in a site this sprawling. Some of the descriptions of structures didn't even say what they were used for.

Villa Adriana, TivoliEven so, some parts of the ruins are striking. The Serapeum, designed after the Egyptian city of Canopus, features a long, green pool, ending in a domed grotto, lined with classical statues. And if you're a sucker for the personal, the (barely-there) ruins of the temple and tomb of Antinous, Hadrian's young lover whom he deified after his death, are poignant.

Still, it was hard to get a feel for what the entire villa would have felt and looked like. And as with so many ruins around Italy, all the "good stuff" was gone: The best statues, mosaics, and frescoes have all been moved elsewhere… particularly to Rome.

In short: Villa d'Este's appealing, particularly on a nice day, but not one of the top-five daytrips I'd recommend from Rome. (Unless for convenience only). And unless you're a big Hadrian fan, or are going to Tivoli anyway and want to fill out your day, I'm not sure that Hadrian's villa would be one of my top recommendations. For huge ruins that pack more of a punch in a smaller space, check out the Baths of Caracalla, in the heart of Rome; for a better-preserved sense of Hadrian's architecture, visit the Pantheon; to see the artistic treasures themselves, head to the Capitoline and Vatican museums.

For more information about Villa d'Este, click here. For more information about Hadrian's villa, click here. Entry to each site costs €10. To get there, you can take a train from Rome's Tiburtina station to Tivoli (about 30 minutes), then a shuttle bus to the town center and Villa d'Este. Another shuttle would be needed to take you to Hadrian's Villa.

 

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